Packers' impotent pass rush was their undoing
GREEN BAY, Wis. -- It was obvious to anyone watching the games. It might as well have been in boldface in the box scores. It was pointed out repeatedly by the players and coaches: The Green Bay Packers were a very poor pass-rushing team this season, and it affected every aspect of their defense.
The drop-off in pass rush from the Packers' Super Bowl-winning 2010 unit to their divisional playoff-losing 2011 version was astounding — from second in the NFL with 47 sacks to tied for 27th with 29 sacks. Consequently, Green Bay went from fifth in the NFL in passing yards allowed to worst in the league.
Starting cornerbacks Charles Woodson and Tramon Williams benefited from the pressure on the quarterback last season and both were named to the Pro Bowl. This season, Woodson and Williams spearheaded a defense that led the NFL in interceptions but too often expected its cornerbacks to do all the work.
After being bounced from the playoffs with barely a whimper, Green Bay's fastest path back to the top of the NFL next season is not to revamp a secondary still flush with talent — it's to find a faster way to the quarterback.
"We really, really pressured people last year and got to the quarterback a ton," Woodson said after his 15-1 Packers were buried by Giants quarterback Eli Manning's 330 passing yards Sunday. "This year we had more interceptions than sacks. I'm not sure when that's happened before.
"Sacks are a big part of what you want to do as a defense, pressuring the quarterback, and we didn't do enough of it this year."
The Packers championed their defense as "bend-but-don't-break" all season because it allowed a respectable number of points, but that motto rang hollow after it collapsed completely against the Giants. Most of the team's good defensive games were against young, inexperienced or bottom-tier quarterbacks. When Green Bay hosted Drew Brees in Week 1, the Saints scored 34 points and almost added more before being stopped at the goal line as time expired. Philip Rivers and San Diego put up 38 points against the Packers in Week 9. Manning and the Giants scored 35 points in Week 13 and had the game tied with less than a minute remaining.
The Packers gave up 71 plays of 20-plus yards this season, the second-worst in the NFL, and the lack of an ability to disrupt quarterbacks was the main reason.
"Everything starts to change once you know you're not getting that rush that you did," Williams said. "The play calls start to change. So there's going to be more holes in the defense at that point. It gets exploited. Everything works together. The coverage and the rush works together. Sometimes we had to cover longer for those guys to get there."
Two differences on this season's roster made all the difference.
Last offseason, general manager Ted Thompson let free-agent defensive end Cullen Jenkins leave without making an offer. Jenkins had seven sacks in 2010 and took a lot of the attention away from linebacker Clay Matthews' dominating outside rush on the other side of the line. With Jenkins recording 5.5 sacks in a Philadelphia Eagles uniform this season, Matthews' sack production took a major hit, falling from 13.5 to 6.0. No Packers lineman had more than three sacks.
Thompson's hope was that second-year lineman Mike Neal would fill the spot vacated by Jenkins, but the 2010 second-round pick was not healthy all season. Neal tore cartilage in his knee during training camp and was out until Week 11. After he returned, he was rusty and recorded only three tackles.
An even bigger blow than Jenkins' loss was when three-time Pro Bowl safety Nick Collins severely injured his neck in Week 2 and was put on injured reserve. With Collins' career possibly in jeopardy, backup Charlie Peprah filled the spot but was unable to do much of what Collins did. Blitzes from linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties — coordinator Dom Capers' specialty — often led to gaffes in the secondary without Collins there to prevent communication breakdowns and make up for mistakes with his athleticism. Watered-down blitz packages made Capers look like a different coach than he was a year ago.
"It's going to be one of the major issues," Capers said Monday referring to the pass rush. "The first two years (I was here), we felt pretty good that our pass rush had improved. That area fell off. A big part of our philosophy is trying to disrupt the quarterback. What we have to do is get those sack numbers and pressures back up. And then in accordance to that, we've got to be able to not give people big plays."
Thompson is not the type to spend big money in free agency, preferring to build his roster through the draft. But the Packers won't be selecting until the 28th pick, and many of the top pass rushers will be off the board by then. However, Thompson traded up in the first round in 2009 to select Matthews, sending away a second-round pick and two third-round picks, and he might have to again to give the defense a needed jolt.
With the league's top offense expected to return largely intact, another year of Neal, Frank Zombo, Erik Walden and Brad Jones as ineffective bookends for Matthews will only prevent the Packers from getting back to the Super Bowl — just as it did this season.
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